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How Contestants' Social Security Numbers Could Affect 'Jeopardy' Wagers

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How Contestants' Social Security Numbers Could Affect 'Jeopardy' Wagers

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How Contestants' Social Security Numbers Could Affect 'Jeopardy' Wagers

How Contestants' Social Security Numbers Could Affect 'Jeopardy' Wagers

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Researchers have found an unconscious bias in the way contestants play the game show Jeopardy.


We have news for viewers of "Jeopardy!" Part of the TV game show involves wagering prize money, and it turns out that people may not realize just why they put certain amounts of money on the line. The research we're about to discuss has implications throughout our lives, and NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking into it.

Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: So what's the research here?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research is about a bias known as anchoring, Steve. And we've actually known about it for a very long time. What's novel here is a couple of researchers took this idea and applied it to the game show, "Jeopardy!" The simplest way to explain anchoring is to tell you about a very old experiment. Jay Walker - he's an economist at Niagara University in Niagara Falls, N.Y. - described the experiment to me.

JAY WALKER: Subjects were asked to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number - like, mine is one-two or yours may be seven-nine - and then they were presented a bottle of wine or an object. The subjects who had the higher last two digits of the Social Security number were generally more willing to pay a greater amount for that bottle of wine or that good.

INSKEEP: Whoa, whoa, whoa. My Social Security number is almost a random number. It has nothing to do with the value of a bottle of wine.

VEDANTAM: That's precisely what anchoring is about. The last two digits of your Social Security number are irrelevant to the question of how much you think the bottle of wine is worth. But having you think about those digits for a moment produces an anchor in your mind. As you go searching for what would be an appropriate price, the anchor pulls you toward it. A higher number pulls you towards a higher number. A lower anchor pulls you towards a lower number.

INSKEEP: So that's the concept. Then how does it apply to "Jeopardy!"?

VEDANTAM: Well, there's an important section of the game known as the Daily Double. So you may choose a question - let's say American capitals for $400 - but once that question opens up, there's a Daily Double prize hidden behind it. The Daily Double allows you to make a wager. Now, instead of just winning $400, you can usually wager a much larger amount.

Walker and his co-author, Michael Jetter, analyzed more than 12,000 wagers placed by more than 6,000 contestants on "Jeopardy!" over many, many years. What they find is that after controlling for many factors, players are influenced by the dollar value on the question that they pick. So if a Daily Double is hidden behind a $2,000 question, people tend to wager more than if it was hidden behind a $400 question. It's important to remember that the dollar value on the original question has no bearing on what the Daily Double question's going to be or how difficult it's going to be.

INSKEEP: It's just a number they saw.

VEDANTAM: Precisely. The main thing that matters in your wager is where you are in the game relative to your opponents. But contestants turn out to be influenced by something irrelevant, the dollar value on the original question. And, of course, that number is working like an anchor.

WALKER: These players are thinking about the category, and they're probably not focusing on the wagering decision. And so instead of slowing down their thought, they just sort of go with the rule of thumb rather than methodically being like, oh, I'm wagering. I need to compare where I'm at now currently in the game and my competitors.

INSKEEP: Could this influence how much I propose to pay for a new car, how much I ask in salary at my job?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think one of the implications of anchoring is that it's often a good idea to make the first bid.

INSKEEP: Letting the other person throw the number out first is going to cause you to be influenced by that number you just heard.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And the context with this "Jeopardy!" experiment is interesting, Steve. These hidden biases often have the biggest effect on us when we're under pressure and trying to do multiple things at once. So the solution is usually be aware of the bias, plan ahead for it and try and slow down.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. We'd like you to contribute to your local public radio station. But before you do, just think about the millions of people who've listened to his podcast, Hidden Brain.

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